Monday, October 14, 2013

The San Antonio COPS Revolution

Here is an important article on the history of Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) in San Antonio It is very much about the potential power that poor, oppressed folks have to turn around their circumstances. This is a very important and rich history without which things would really have turned out a lot differently in San Antonio and beyond had COPS never entered the picture.

This is a painful and indeed shameful story of the ways in which the poor were directly victimized by city leaders in San Antonio.

The world is fortunate to have benefited from the extraordinary community activist leadership of Ernesto Cortes and Oralia Garza de Cortes who have dedicated their lives to helping the poor.  I remain deeply inspired and encouraged by all that they have done.  May God continue to bless this work greatly.


The San Antonio COPS Revolution 

By Roberto Vazquez, 

LaRed Latina News Network

Posted on March 14, 2005, Printed on March 14, 2005

In her San Antonio Express-News column of 6/6/04, Jan Jarboe Russel,
describes very graphically the 1974 confrontation of 
COPS Representatives and then Mayor Charles Becker.

"On a muggy Thursday night in August 1974, about 500 members of 
Communities Organized for Public Service converged in the City Council 
chamber and demanded to be heard. 

Now Father Albert Benavides and Beatrice Gallego stood at the microphone 
and insisted (Mayor) Charles Becker and the City Council hear them out. I 
will never forget the anger etched like granite on Benavides' face. The 
priest stood there, shaking his fists high in the air, looking like the 
prophet Jeremiah." 

What was not known back then was that Father Benavides, along with the 
other COPS representatives had been quietly organizing, and painstakingly 
researching the issues for a whole year before they decided to approach 
city officials. It turned out that COPS representatives were much better 
informed, and more knowledgeable about San Antonio socio-economic and 
political issues then were the Mayor, Councilmen, and City Manager. 

Even that famous 1974, confrontation between COPS and Charles Becker/City 
Council, was carefully choreographed and orchestrated beforehand by COPS. 
By the time COPS representatives decided to approach San Antonio city 
officials, they already had rehearsed political strategies, tactics, along 
with contingency plans to cover almost any conceivable scenario or counter 
action posed by the opposition.

In other words, the city government establishment had no chance against 
COPS. However, city officials did not know that. They were caught totally 
by surprise.

Through their intensive research, COPS members found out that city 
officials had for decades been diverting city funds from the inner city to 
newly developed subdivisions on the North Side. In effect city officials 
were stealing from the poor West and South side neighborhoods to provide 
funds for developers in the affluent North Side suburbs.

In a 1978 article, Moises Sandoval, a Alicia Patterson Foundation award 
winner, notes, "Officials whom they had held in awe had for years 
"re-programmed" to the suburbs bond monies earmarked for inner city 
projects such as critically needed storm sewers. Meanwhile, persons were 
drowning when heavy rains flooded low-lying barrios. Even as COPS was 
beginning to fasten an eagle eye on the City Council's activities, the 
city voted to buy a golf course from a developer with federal Community 
Development Act funds which were supposed to be spent for the improvement 
of poor neighborhoods. (COPS action led to a veto of the purchase of 
federal authorities.) Developers were receiving millions of taxpayers' 
money in subsidies for water main installations in subdivisions both 
inside and outside the city limits while central city neighborhoods had to 
make do with two-inch mains which made washing dishes and taking a shower 
activities that could not go on at the same time in one house."

Jan Jarboe clearly describes this issue in her 6/6/04 Express-News column 
about the legendary confrontation of COPS and Mayor Charles Becker. 

"Father Albert Benavides spoke directly to (Mayor) Charles Becker and 
told him that even though many drainage projects for the West Side had 
been authorized by the city in bond issues, they never were built. 
Becker turned to City Manager Sam Granata and asked if the priest was 
telling the truth. Granata indicated that it was true. Then Becker asked 
how long the drainage projects for the West Side had been planned. "About 
40 years," Granata responded." 

Forty years is a long time to wait for services. It's possible that if 
COPS had not intervened then, the West Side might still be waiting for the 
drainage projects today. 
In 1988, Henry Cisneros, former San Antonio Mayor was quoted as saying,
"I can say unequivocally, COPS has fundamentally altered the moral tone 
and the political and physical face of San Antonio." 

These words ring true today as they did back then. Since 1973, through the 
present, COPS/Metro Alliance, have managed to dramatically transform and 
diversify electoral politics in San Antonio, and Bexar County. This 
community organization has also managed to generate over one billion 
dollars in city/county, state, and federal public funds for capital and 
infrastructure improvements for the West and South sides of San Antonio. 
These projects included a community college, drainage systems, new housing 
and housing rehabilitation, public parks, health clinics, public libraries 
and a host of other related urban improvements. 

One may wonder how COPS became so effective in social and political 
engineering in San Antonio. Some say it's because they are a faith-based 
organization inspired by God, the scriptures, the Prophets and the Holy 
Spirit.  I personally think there may be some truth to this notion. 
However, I believe the main reason COPS has been so successful is because 
they are a grass-roots organization that works to build long term 
relationships among members based on family values, religious and social 
traditions, as well as good old "All American" Democratic ideals and 

Mark Warren, in "Connecting People to Politics,"  quotes Reverend Mike 
Haney as saying "COPS is a way of implementing the gospel's call to 
justice that it imposes on us. This happens in a couple of ways: dealing 
with issues themselves; and COPS calls us to work as a collective, to find 
strength in community, and that's a gospel call itself." Reverend Rosendo 
Urrabazo, in the other hand notes "The purpose of COPS is not issues; the 
purpose of COPS is leadership formation." 

In a Key Note speech "Building a Just Society Through Ethical Leadership,"  
in 2001 at the University of Texas,Ernie Cortez, current Southwest Regional 
Director of the IAF said,

"That's the role of a broad-based organization, to mentor, to guide, to
teach, to teach people to act on their own interests. That's the work that
COPS is involved in, that's the work that Valley Interfaith is involved
in, that's the work that all the IAF organizations are involved in." He
continues, "It's important for people who don't have any power to learn
that they can get power by organizing, to get power by beginning to
negotiate, to get power by developing broad-based institutions."

In a December 1999 article, Cheryl Dahle, senior writer at Fast Company, 
quotes Ernie Cortez, "We organize people not just around issues, but 
around their values. The issues fade, and people lose interest in them. 
But what they really care about remains: family, dignity, justice, and 
hope. We need power to protect what we value."

Cortez, also explains, "The politics that we talk about is the politics of
the Greeks -- the politics of negotiation and deliberation and struggle,
in which people engage in confrontation and compromise. My goal is to
reclaim that political tradition."

The COPS organizational philosophy  and strategies may be complex and at 
times esoteric in nature, but everyone agrees that their political tactics 
have been highly effective in bringing people together to participate in 
the American Democratic process. 

To understand the magnitude of COPS accomplishments in the last 30 years,
one has to understand the socio-economic and political situation of the
Mexican American community in San Antonio during the 60s and early 70s.  
Since the early 50s the GGL,(Good Government League) comprised of wealthy
Anglo ranchers and businessmen from the North Side had almost full control
of electoral politics in San Antonio. The GGL had the wealth, clout and
influence, to arbitrarily select as well as generate the votes to elect
City Councilmen in San Antonio.

Harry Boyte, of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, notes," In the 
early seventies, San Antonio still had a "colonial" air where a small 
group of businessmen, most of whom belonged to the segregated Texas 
Cavalier Country Club, held sway. City council members were elected at 
large, which meant that Mexican and African American candidates could 
almost never raise funds to compete." 

In a 1988 Commonwealth article, Henry Cisneros, who holds masters and 
doctoral degrees from Harvard, noted that in the late 60s San Antonio was 
"so poor that Peace Corps volunteers were trained in its barrios (West and 
South sides) to simulate the conditions they would face in Latin America. 
Thousands of Hispanics and black families lived in colonias, with 
common-wall, shotgun houses built around public sanitation facilities with 
outdoor toilets. The barrios had no sidewalks or paved streets, no 
drainage system or flood control. Every spring brought flooding; families 
were driven from their homes; children walked to school through mud 
sloughs. In the shadow of downtown San Antonio lurked a stateside 
third-world 'country'." 

At the height of the civil-rights movement," Ernesto Cortes, former Senior 
COPS organizer and recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" Award wrote, "It was 
not unusual to equate the repressive conditions under which the Mexicanos 
of South Texas lived to the situation of blacks in the Deep South. Racism 
and cultural repression reinforced an economic need to maintain a 
reactionary social and political framework for the state." 

Fast Forward to 2005, when one sees the level of political diversity, and 
ethnic harmony in San Antonio, folks, especially young people, may think 
this is the way it has always been. Without COPS intervention back in the 
early 70's, it is likely that the GGL or some other similar elitist 
organization might still be holding a socio-political, and economic 
monopoly in San Antonio. It is also highly likely that the dire economic 
and political conditions of the Mexican-American community in San Antonio 
might still be the same, or perhaps even worse, today as they were in the 

San Antonio, was virtually turned upside down socially, economically and 
politically. COPS indeed revolutionized San Antonio, and did so in a 
relatively peaceful, and harmonious fashion. Some of COPS major 
accomplishments are the following: 

1) "COPS" notes Boyte, "shattered San Antonio's established conservative 
order," by helping to transform and reform the city electoral system in 
San Antonio. COPS was instrumental in changing the electoral process in 
San Antonio from an at-large to a single member district system. This 
vital change in the electoral process allowed City candidates to be 
elected from single member districts, and provided the opportunity for 
Mexican Americans to form a majority in the San Antonio City Council since 

2) COPS managed to generate over one billion dollars in city/county, 
state, and federal public funds for capital and infrastructure 
improvements for the West and South sides of San Antonio. Along with a 
brand new community college in the Southside, COPS was instrumental in 
developing a host of projects including street paving, drainage systems, 
new housing and housing rehabilitation, public parks, health clinics, 
public libraries and other related urban improvements

3) By conducting city-wide voter registration drives, COPS helped elect
Henry Cisneros, who in turn gained national prominence and visibility as
the first Hispanic mayor of a major American city.

4) COPS was instrumental in the establishment of PROJECT QUEST, a 
nationally recognized job training and educational program, and a 2003 
winner of The Enterprise Foundation and The J.P. Morgan Chase Foundation 
Award for Excellence in Workforce Development. PROJECT QUEST was also a 
winner of a 1995 Innovations Award from the Ford Foundation and the 
Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. 

5) Another one of COPS major achievements was their keen ability and
acumen to hold politicians accountable and honest. For the past 30 years
COPS has been the conscience of the San Antonio, and Bexar County
electoral system. Through their civic vigilance, and rigorous
accountability sessions, COPS has steadfastly worked to keep politicians
honest, fair, and accountable to the voters.

But the work is not done yet. There are still vital economic and 
employment issues, and challenges that need be addressed in San Antonio. 

In a 1999 Texas Observer editorial Louis Dubose, quotes Ernie Cortez, as
follows,"Among the fifteen largest cities in the country, San Antonio has
the second-highest number of people living below the poverty level. Half
of those living below the poverty level are between the ages of eighteen
and fifty-nine. And most are working: San Antonio's current unemployment
rate is lower than 3.5 percent. Why are people working to remain poor?."

This may be one of the reasons that education and job training have been 
central issues for the COPS organization. COPS has been instrumental in 
the establishment and development of a host of innovative and progressive 
educational and job training programs in San Antonio. According to Louis 
Dubose, on a 1999 Texas Observer editorial, COPS has been directly and 
indirectly responsible for the establishment of the following programs.

1) A city-wide after-school program that currently serves 34,000 
   students in San Antonio public schools; 

2) An education partnership program that has provided college 
   scholarships for 4,500 students and reduced the dropout rate; 

3) A job-training program that has placed more than 1,000 workers in 
   jobs that pay an average of $10.16 an hour; 

4) A program in the city's Alliance Schools, which provides 
   after-school programs, curriculum innovations, and counseling for 
   students and their families.

Perhaps San Antonio should join and rally with COPS to expand these 
programs, as well as develop new ones. The future of San Antonio may well 
depend on the quantity and quality of these educational and job training 
programs and how well these prepare the workforce to meet the challenges 
of an ever changing and increasingly complex, technical, and sophisticated 

Margaret Mead once wrote, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, 
committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that 
ever has." 

During the last 31 years, COPS/Metro Alliance, has indeed changed and 
transformed the world in San Antonio, and continues to work towards 
empowering the poor and the voiceless, as well as improving the social, 
educational, and economic conditions of all San Antonio citizens. 


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